Nov. 16, 2010 -- At a meeting of People magazine's brass in New York, the names and superlatives fly: Ryan Reynolds is "very sexy"; Jon Hamm is "beautiful" and "you don't get any better or hotter" than Justin Timberlake.
The magazine is in the throes of its annual search for the man who will grace the cover of its 25th annual "Sexiest Man Alive" edition, one of the most successful franchises in People's history. But with so many choices out there, how do you pick one?
"We know it has to be a mix of someone who's hot but well-known. Not too young, not too old and somebody who, frankly, maybe we haven't thought of. So the doors are open, no holds barred, what do we think?" People managing editor Larry Hackett asks his staff.
For more than an hour, they argue over a bevy of beautiful men. Actors Robert Downey Jr., Javier Bardem, James Franco and Jake Gyllenhaal all get name-checked, as does singer Ricky Martin and "Jersey Shore" reality TV star Pauly D.
Hackett leaves the meeting in a hopeful mood.
"I think it went well. I think choices brought up were veterans and also new people came up," he says.
People spends months holding such discussions, as well as conducting focus groups and other research to zero in on its eventual pick -- and with good reason: Any cover is a high-stakes gamble that can cost a magazine millions in revenues.
"A lot comes down to the photo," Hackett says. "This person looking at you, literally looking at you, making eye contact. ... At that moment of transaction, conception, the buyer, the woman has to say, yeah, that's it."
In 2005, People editors took a chance by putting Matthew McConaughey on the cover.
"He didn't fit the kind of mold that we had been using. He was not somebody who had necessarily big-top box-office pictures or was selling," Hackett says. "But he clearly had a certain sense of humor. ... He just seemed like kind of a good-natured guy, in the best sense."
The McConaughey issue turned out to be People's third-best-selling "Sexiest Man Alive" edition.
What Is Sexy?
So what is sexy? A state of mind? A flirtatious smile?
Hackett says it's not just "raw animal appeal."
"Sexy certainly has to do with someone being good-looking, and has to do with a certain kind of romantic, flirtatiousness physical appeal that may be beyond just [an] academic appreciation of the way they look," he said. "We want some mystery in our sexiness."
2008's "Sexiest Man Alive" Hugh Jackman has his own view on what it takes to be sexy.
"It's more about your inner confidence, your sense of humor, how you project yourself -- not just the physical," he said.